Meals with wheels: A fresh food movement rolls into Boston
Wander through Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District, SoCo in Austin, or Manhattan’s financial district and you won’t be able to spit without hitting a food truck selling poutine, Korean tacos, or barbecue in some form. The trend has hit Boston as well, unless you happen to live in the neighborhood of Roxbury.
Most Roxbury residents are black or Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey. Thirty percent of the people living there have incomes below the poverty line. A Tufts project found the obesity rate of Roxbury about 8 percent higher than the overall average in the city.
And it isn’t just food trucks missing, says Cassandria Campbell, who calls Roxbury home. Grocery stores and restaurants serving healthier options aren’t in high supply. “I found myself going to other neighborhoods to get good food,” she says. “These food trucks [appearing in other parts of the city] weren’t serving my neighborhood or other neighborhoods in Boston that are similar in demographic to mine.”
So she called up her friend Jackson Renshaw with an idea for solving both the dearth of trucks and lack of access to healthy, local food in one swoop.
The two first met over lettuce and kale in the urban farms of The Food Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that gets kids involved in growing their own eats. After The Food Project, Campbell headed for Swarthmore and later M.I.T., where she earned a Masters in Urban Planning. Renshaw went to the University of Vermont to study agriculture, then returned to Boston, where he got a job as truck manager for Bon Me, a truck serving Vietnamese food to hungry Boston dwellers.
Now, with their powers combined, they are Captain Food. With the backing of Kickstarter fans, who put up over $52,000, they launched a project called Fresh Food Generation. Their plan is to retrofit a food truck to serve healthy, locally sourced meals at affordable prices in neighborhoods that have been missing out on the trend. While raising money for the truck online, Fresh Food Generation has been perfecting its menu at other events and fundraisers. Recently the crew could be found serving samples at an community art event in Roxbury.
One of their biggest challenges is finding food that is in season in these chilly climes. There are places in the world where strawberries, bananas, lettuce, broccoli, and other produce grows year round. Boston is not one of those places. “It really helps having someone that has a background in farming on the team — knowing what’s the most affordable and available crop at the time of year,” Campbell says of her partner’s ag experience.
Renshaw acknowledges that getting fresh food out of the frozen ground is not nearly as easy in winter — but there are options. There are a variety of squashes, root vegetables, and partnerships with local greenhouses to round out the offerings.
To turn the limited winter produce options into truck-worthy entrees, Campbell and Renshaw brought chef Nadine Nelson on board. Nelson has a background in haute cuisine that goes back to Paris. She makes a mean West African stew using the available meat and produce, Renshaw says. “The secret ingredient is the combination of peanut butter and tomato sauce.”
“We also have an apple curry chutney that we make with local apples — the Roxbury Russet,” he says. “It grows right in Roxbury. We’re trying to show a lot of Boston pride and love for the neighborhood by using food that grows there.”
“Trendy,” “local,” and “fresh” are not words typically associated with low-cost, of course. “I think one of the most common questions is how is our food going to be affordable,” Campbell says.
Renshaw describes their approach to food as “gleaning,” which goes back to an Old Testament commandment that farmers leave the edges of their crops available for the poor to pick up. Similarly, Fast Food Generation picks up seconds and overstock from local growers. “It’s really hard to sell 200 pounds of squash in a day,” Renshaw says. “If people have leftovers and beat up vegetables, we’ll use them for the truck.”
Campbell notes that the take-whatever’s-available is also helpful on the non-veg side. Rather than asking a farmer for a supply of fillets, “we’ll pick a price point and see what’s available. They’ll tell me they’re killing the cow tomorrow and they’ll see what they have,” she says.
For now, the focus is getting the truck up and running, but Campbell is already dreaming bigger. “It’s really about getting food that’s affordable, quick, and healthy to people,” she says. “It’s about creating a model that works for people and can hopefully be taken to other cities.”